Fix council, revive democracy

Yes, to a ward system in Red Deer. Yes, to councillor positions changing from part time to full time, and paying them more.

Yes, to a ward system in Red Deer.

Yes, to councillor positions changing from part time to full time, and paying them more.

And maybe, to a four-year term for council members.

These are my votes regarding a report city council looked at Monday that, frankly, surprised me a little. That’s because it suggests profound changes at City Hall that could actually come with some controversy — or at the very least get voters paying attention.

General speaking, the mentality of city council isn’t one that rocks the boat, and tends to approve city administration recommendations and budgets without causing too much unrest amongst themselves.

Before I get into why I support a ward system and full-time council positions, allow me to set the scene a little.

In some communities around the world today, people are killed or injured as they demonstrate for democratic elections.

In Red Deer, and many other Canadian communities where democracy is taken for granted, municipalities have taken to almost begging people to vote.

In fact, an already record low voter turnout in the 2007 municipal election of 27 per cent dropped even lower in 2010 with only 24.79 per cent of eligible voters doing their civic duty.

How low can they go?

So, less than 25 per cent of the voting population has chosen 100 per cent of city council. Last week, that city council approved a $94.8-million 2012 capital budget.

For those who want to know, that’s almost a 10 per cent increase from the previous year. Regardless of how much city council may downplay this, it’s a significant increase.

Interesting isn’t it how the public gets to hear what’s in the capital budget one day and then it’s passed by council just one day later. In fact, it’s downright amazing. How in the world can voters possibly respond to a budget that’s announced one day and passed the next?

While council may argue that they built the capital budget based on earlier public and administration input, one day between announcing the draft budget and then approving is way too quick.

If city council wants to see more citizen participation, why wouldn’t it allow for more time between presenting the draft budget and passing it. Suffice to say this kind of lightning speed approval schedule doesn’t just hinder public debate, it stifles it.

If the aim is to get voters involved, this is not the way to do it.

However, on a more hopeful note, just days after passing the capital budget (they will look at the operating budget in January), council, in its regular business, may look at changing the structure of city council.

Instead of an at-large system, where eight councillors and the mayor win by getting the most votes, the possibility of a ward system is being considered.

We wouldn’t likely see this until sometime after a plebiscite is held in the next municipal election, in 2013.

A ward system would see the city divided into sections, and candidates would run in defined wards. We would then see council comprised of individuals across the city, who would answer to and represent their particular ward constituents.

My view is that this would generate more interest amongst voters, and help to reverse those horrible voter turnout numbers. Councillors would take forward the concerns of their constituents, more debate might occur, and more citizens might start to shed their apathy. As well, councillors, because they represent particular areas, are likely to have more personal contact with their constituents.

I’ve suggested before that four wards, with two councillors in each ward, would be a good way to start off a ward system. As we approach a population of 100,000, a ward system makes good sense.

And with council handling capital and operating budgets combining to be well over $300 million annually, even though there’s significant administration staff helping to run the show, making council jobs full time also make sense. It should require the full-time attention of city council, and may in fact attract candidates who normally wouldn’t want to put their names in the hat. It is a bit of a two-edged sword, because it could eliminate other quality candidates who want to juggle their other job with a council position.

But with a larger and larger population and big budgets, part-time council positions seem wholly inadequate.

The province is looking at possibly turning three-year terms for municipal councillors into four-year terms. It would save on election costs but to simply increase the terms without other changes, i.e. a ward system, voter apathy might increase as issues during any given term tend to fade over time.

If suggested changes to the way we elect city council improve interest in democracy, we’re all winners.

Mary-Ann Barr is the Advocate’s assistant city editor. She can be reached at 403-314-4332, by email at barr@bprda.wpengine.com or on Twitter @maryannbarr1.

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